and the Beast--The gorgeous Hasselblad 202FA with stunning
60-120 zoom vs. the rude, crude Kiev 88TTL. Difference
in price? A cool $6500.
This is a story I had to
do. Like you, I've been seeing those little ads in the back of
Shutterbug touting cameras made in the ex-Soviet Union. A whole setup
with normal lens, body, two film backs, waist-level finder, and filters
for an amazing $500? How could they do it so inexpensively? Could the
cameras be any good? Who would fix them? Should I buy one?
Well, like the Kiev story itself, the answers are a bit confusing. Here's
how it started for me. Some time ago I read Bob Shell's piece
on the Kiev 88. Funky but useable, and priced like no other medium format
camera. Now understand, I have a full selection of cameras in my business,
so I didn't need another camera. I was intrigued with the possibilities
of an inexpensive back-up camera, perfect for keeping in the trunk of
the car for impromptu medium format sessions. Like some Hasselblad owners,
I assumed that the Kiev lenses and backs would fit. Turns out that Kievs
are very strange beasts, marching to the beat of a 50-year-old drummer.
The years rolled on and I kept checking out the prices on Kiev stuff.
I saw a few at the table of a Russian fellow at a photo show in New
York, but they seemed so crude that I passed. Then things changed in
the photo world and in the financial world. The last few years have
seen a trend toward very wide angle photography. Clients have asked
for a fisheye look a lot, and I've had to respond. My widest lens
is a 50mm, so I've rented the big and awesome 30mm Distagon when
I needed it. (Buying one will set you back a sobering $6K.)
Here's the Kiev USA cameras up against the inexpensive
Kiev body. The smooth Kiev 88CB (L) features cloth shutters,
Pentacon lens mount, and the indispensable rapid wind
While this was happening
on the artistic side, the exchange rates got all crazy, and the price
of goods from the former Soviet Union began to plummet. When I began
to see Kiev bodies and lenses, especially the Ukrainian fisheye drop
from around $600 to just a few hundred dollars, I figured that it was
time to leap. I checked out the ads in Shutterbug and a few other sources.
I chatted with owners on usenet groups, spoke to importers in California
and Georgia, and e-mailed Kiev resellers all over the world. I began
to educate myself about these odd cameras, and it became a little hobby
of mine. I looked at the Kiev 88 and the big Kiev 60. I took the plunge
and grabbed a bargain priced fisheye with an 88 body to go along with
it and began to shoot some film. How good was it?
First the Kiev story. All of the cameras and lenses branded with the
Kiev name are manufactured in Kiev Ukraine, at a factory called Arsenal
which also makes military equipment. These aren't Rus-sian cameras
at all, but in fact Ukrainian cameras. While the Kiev 88 looks a lot
like an old Hasselblad, the Ukrainians claim that Hassys and Kievs were
copied from a secret Zeiss prototype for military use. The monstrous
Kiev 60 looks a lot like a Pentax 67 hit with an ugly stick, but it's
really a beefed up Pentacon 6, and only shoots a 6x6cm frame, not 6x7.
Some Ukrainian lenses are made using old Zeiss lens formulas. An old
Zeiss lens for a Hasselblad is still a good picture taker, so the Kiev
glass can be quite good. The Kiev 88s have a focal plane shutter with
a 1/30 sec flash synch. The stock Kiev 88 comes with a bronze colored
corrugated stainless steel focal plane shutter.
Hartblei cameras from Kalimex in Prague are nicely reworked.
The beautifully machined rapid wind crank is near Hasselblad
quality, and the lens mount and film back mounting plates
are also well machined.
What about Hasselblad compatibility?
No dear friends, the lenses, film backs, and bodies are not compatible
with Hasselblad cameras. The prisms and finders are interchangeable, and
a lot of Hasselblad users have done just fine with Ukrainian prisms.
To find out if these cameras were any good at all Shutterbug contacted
a number of Kiev resellers to provide test cameras and lenses. For the
cheaper than cheap, totally untested, you-buy-it-you-own-it cameras we
turned to Mikhail Fourman in Atlanta and Gennady Kaplan in Los Angeles.
For totally rebuilt and thoroughly guaranteed Kievs we looked to none
other than Saul Kaminsky of Kiev USA in Connecticut. For reasonable prices,
excellent inventory, and a warranty there's Russian Camera Exchange
in Berkeley, California. For customized, rebuilt, and fine-tuned Ukrainian
dream machines we contacted Kiev hot-rodders Kalimex in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
(Who says Shutterbug doesn't go the extra mile?)
The first Kiev product through the door was a basic Kiev 88 kit from our
man in L.A., Kaplan. Once I popped open the brown shipping carton and
fished through the peanuts I found the Kiev display box. Within I found
a rather complete medium format kit. A Kiev 88 camera body with bronze
colored corrugated metal shutter, an Arsat B 80mm lens, two 6x6 manual
load 120 film backs, and a waist-level finder. To his credit, Kaplan included
an English Owners Manual, but the overall quality of the packaging was
pretty poor. The camera itself was just as confusing. It wasn't
as bad as I had feared, but a Kiev 88 is a very rough beast. Rough is
a good word. Crude is a good word. Inexpensive is a good word. Inexpensive?
Yeah, the kit that I now held in my hands carried an invoice with the
amazing price of $250, for an interchangeable lens, interchangeable back
medium format camera with two film backs.
Here is my assortment of lenses. Imagine owning this entire
arsenal of Ukrainian glass for around $1300.
My enthusiasm perked up, I
loaded the little guy with some film. I was weaned on manual advance backs
in the '70s, so the archaic film loading system was nothing new
to me. I had been warned about uneven frame spacing and other maladies,
so I followed Kaplan's Owners Manual exactly. Once loaded and mounted
on the camera I took a few test shots with daylight. The shutter release
felt OK, but cranking the first frame through there was the distinct sound
of crushing walnuts. Uh-oh, what did I do wrong? Well, nothing...that's
just the way they sound. I shot a few rolls of film with this camera and
an identical 88 sent from Fourman in Atlanta. Fourman's camera was
the TTL version, which features the 45° prism with the uncoupled meter.
His 88 made the same walnut noises, but they both sort of worked fine,
for a while.
After three rolls one of the bodies jammed. I mean jammed dead solid,
with no way to budge the crank. I had heard about this from some Kiev
users, so I was prepared for it. I had heard that the parts inside the
Kiev 88s were mostly made from inexpensive steel, and many parts that
wear against each other are not polished at all. The result is that the
parts don't glide smoothly against each other, and ultimately jam.
To see if I could fix it I removed the lens and back, took the body firmly
in my right hand and banged it against my desk firmly. (I'm not
kidding.) To my utter amazement, the camera worked fine after that. After
the jamming incident, I wound the film smoothly and s-l-o w-l-y, and had
no further problems.
Here's our test stable. Clockwise from top left: remarkable
Arsat 30mm fisheye, bare bones Kiev 88, Kiev 60, Kiev USA
88, Kiev USA 88CB TTL, Kiev Polaroid back, Hartblei 1006
The meter in the TTL prism
isn't exactly sophisticated, but it works. Two CDS cells and an
uncoupled dial and that's it folks. Straight out of the box the
meter was off by four f/stops. Amazingly, it appears that these cameras
are inspected neither at the factory nor in the States. While Kaplan and
Fourman offer limited warranties, their only recourse is to send you a
new one, since they maintain no repair or adjustment facilities. Of course,
calibrating the Jurassic-era meter is simple enough; just get out your
18 percent gray card and a good light meter, get a correct exposure from
the handheld meter, then loosen the outer dial via the three set screws,
and tighten when the numbers are lined up. Now you are the proud owner
of a reasonably accurate uncoupled Ukrainian prism finder.
While the lack of any US repair facilities and the limited warranty makes
buying from the discount guys a decided crapshoot, their prices make it
awfully enticing. As we went to press Kaplan was offering the Kiev 88
kit for a modest $250, and the complete 88TTL kit for $335. Lenses and
backs were just as reasonable. Fourman had fisheyes for a stunning $175,
45mm wide angles for under $185, and monster Jupiter 250mm f/3.5 lenses
for an eye opening $200. If affordable is what you want, you can't
beat these guys. Their products are untouched from the factory, so even
the new lenses often have slow diaphragms, rough focusing mechanisms,
and misaligned elements. Fortunately, both are decent and seemingly honest
guys, and have built up a good track record of replacing defective items
The bronze metal shutter on the left is a poor choice of
materials. The more expensive cloth shutter on the Kiev
88CB is smoother, more accurate, and much quieter.
OK, we've found the world's
most inexpensive medium format cameras, but with their appearance, limited
warranty, and total lack of service you might be wondering if it's
really worth the risk. For the casual user, the bargain guys seem like
a decent way to go. According to some Kiev experts I spoke with, bodies
made after 1991 are far superior to the earlier bodies. The serial numbers
begin with the year numbers, so look for bodies that start with '92
or later, same for backs.
A $250 system may be a good deal for a casual user, but what about for
someone like me, who uses his equipment hard and always expects it to
work? For us there is always Kiev USA. Kaminsky has assembled a small
group of Russian camera repairmen who methodically disassemble every body,
fix the funky stuff, polish the rough parts, and even replace some weak
parts with custom-made pieces made from stronger stuff. Word on the street
is that they also routinely disassemble and align the elements of lenses
and fix the sometimes sluggish diaphragm springs. Kaminsky sent us a couple
of cameras to look at, a bare bones Kiev 88 with the aforementioned metal
shutter, and a high-end Kiev 88CB. The CB is an interesting camera, since
it combines the inexpensive Kiev 88 body with the lens mount from the
Kiev 60 and a black cloth shutter assembly. The lens mount means that
you can buy a Kiev 88CB and a Kiev 60 and interchange lenses, and you
can also use the Zeiss Jena lenses originally designed for the Pentacon
6 cameras. The cloth shutter not only gets rid of the flare problems,
but it is much, much quieter.
Here is our Kiev 88TTL kit as it arrived from Gennady Kaplan
in Los Angeles--body, two backs, TTL prism, filters, 80mm
Arsat lens, and a strap. Not bad for under $350.
While the two Kiev USA cameras
arrived in a fancy little Cordura bag, if you're expecting a much
slicker looking camera forget about it. Kaminsky and his troops work on
the guts of the camera and leave the exterior alone. The basic Kiev 88
looks just like the $250 item from Kaplan, but loading some film and shooting
a few frames reveals the difference. The walnut crushing noise is gone,
and the camera operates smoothly and predictably. The fancier 88CB is
even nicer, with a smooth shutter release, a nice Hasselblad-style winding
crank, and as smooth a film advance as you'll find anywhere. Using
this camera is effortless, and the ability to use Zeiss Jena lenses makes
it a real professional tool. Kaminsky does pretty good work here, but
his service and his iron-clad guarantee add to the price of ownership.
His base Kiev 88 is a reasonable $499, but the tempting 88CB is a more
sobering $1285. While these prices seem totally out of whack with the
mail-order guys, remember that these cameras are rebuilt and bullet-proofed,
so you'll not only save on repair charges but on blown rolls of
Is there really $900 difference between a mail-order 88TTL and Kaminsky's
slick handling 88CB? The answer is yes and no. To get a Kiev 88TTL with
cloth shutters and Pentacon lens mount you'll need to pay the inexpensive
guys about $750 and wait several months. For your $750 you'll get
a camera with no rapid wind crank, no final testing, and no repair warranty.
(The rapid wind crank is a near necessity.) Since Kaminsky will upgrade
your mail-order camera to a 88CB for $775 and then add a couple hundred
bucks for the crank, you're right back where you started from. All
of Kaminsky's cameras operated flawlessly, though the meter in the
TTL prism was off by 1.5 stops. Of course with their full warranty, Kiev
USA will adjust the meter to your satisfaction.
The 250 f/3.5 Jupiter is a fast, affordable decent lens.
Even with strong backlighting, this shot is tack-sharp,
contrasty, and exhibits the gorgeous color that most of
the inexpensive Ukrainian lenses are known for.
© 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
While the Kiev USA cameras
offer reasonable build quality, a strong warranty, and a still palatable
sticker price, I had still been hearing about another outfit in Europe
that was making hot-rodded Kiev 88s. The firm, Kalimex, is located in
Prague, Czechoslovakia. Kalimex not only offers Kiev cameras, but they
also have a European camera rebuilder named Hartblei who strips and rebuilds
Kievs to produce Hartblei branded cameras. Kalimex provided a small sampling
of their wares for us to examine, and opening this box was quite a surprise.
Inside of small Cordura camera bags we found a whole array of Kiev 88
bodies reworked with brown snakeskin print leather coverings; black, chrome,
and gold hardware; and beautifully machined rapid wind cranks. Kalimex
calls their version of the 88CB the Hartblei 1006 Master (though they
also offer a Kiev-branded camera for hundreds of dollars less), and it
shows that a decent shop can really polish up a bare bones Kiev. This
camera is a really nice handling camera, and feels the most professional
of the bunch. It too features a Pentacon lens mount and cloth shutters,
but they have gone to great lengths to re-plate and re-machine every inch
of the camera.
Perhaps best of all, the Hartblei cameras have a redesigned film mounting
flange and film backs, which are totally compatible with Hasselblad cameras.
This means that you can use your existing backs and Polaroids with Hartblei
cameras, or pick up a few spare Hartblei backs for back-up with your Hassy
system. Kaminsky also sells the Hasselblad-compatible film backs.
Kalimex also sent us a few lenses to check out. Branded as Hartblei, the
45 f/3.5 PCS and 65 f/3.5 PCS lenses were the nicest surprise of this
review. Both are multi-coated and well finished and feature a modest 10mm
of shift. Since I shoot a couple of dozen corporate exteriors a year,
I really need a PCS lens. (By shifting the lens up instead of tilting
the camera up, you can prevent that "falling down building"
syndrome.) I have been using my ancient Canon 35 PC lens on an old F1,
but the 65mm PCS Hartblei lens has now become my favorite.
Bob Shell and I are big fans of the Ukrainian made Kalenar
150 lens. With a fast 2.8 aperture and gorgeous color, it's
a nice choice for medium length portraits like this poolside
The prices quoted by Kalimex
are just out of this world. While a brand-new Hasselblad Arcbody and 45mm
lens might set you back around $5600, and a 75mm shift lens for a Mamiya
RZ runs around $3000, the 45 PCS from Hartblei lists for $525. The 65mm
lens is an astounding $450. How they can offer these nicely made lenses
for this kind of dough is beyond me. The pro-quality 1006 Master comes
complete with the TTL prism finder (which was spot on, by the way) for
a reasonable $870. Kalimex also sent Shutterbug the top of the line $900
1006 Studio Master camera, but it hadn't arrived by deadline time.
With these reasonable prices and some decent cosmetics, the whole deal
seems too good to be true, but then you realize that these guys are in
Czechoslovakia. While shipping costs do add to the price, the biggest
problem is the risk. You've got to send these guys your money ahead
of time, and it can take months to get the product from them. In fact,
the gorgeous 45mm PCS lens came through with a defective diaphragm, so
what to do? Send it back to Prague, wait two months and then ask Kalimex
to reimburse you for your freight expenses? (They promise to do so.) Repair
it here (if anyone will touch it) and hope that they'll pay for
it? The Hartblei cameras are certainly the nicest looking Kievs around,
and the quality of their fit and finish is very close to a modern Mamiya
or Hasselblad. While they seem like a good bunch of guys, you've
got to be motivated to fire off a couple of grand to Prague when the local
camera store has a used Bronica SQ for $1000 on the shelf, but if you're
looking for the ultimate Kiev experience, this may be it.
If your Kiev breaks, you've only got a few places to turn. Most
repair shops will not service them. Rebuilt cameras like the Kiev USAs
are a different story, and of course Kiev USA operates a thriving Kiev
repair business. There are also a handful of expatriate Russian repairmen
in the New York area who work on these cameras, and several of them advertise
in Shutterbug. Since even a simple jam will cost a few hundred bucks to
fix, if you plan to shoot a lot of film, you might be tempted to splurge
and buy a Kiev USA model or buy into Kaminsky's upgrade package.
Most Kiev shooters bought a body to use the spectacular 30mm fisheye.
True to form, the 30mm Arsat that I received from Kaplan in Los Angeles
was clean as a whistle, sealed in its archaic Ukrainian foam packaging
and fully multi-coated. I have used this lens on a couple of dozen assignments,
and it is absolutely great. Sharp, saturated, and displaying excellent
multi-coating, I can shoot this thing straight into the sun and get good
results. I paid well under $300 for this lens, and consider it one of
the best bargains ever. After my good experience with the fisheye, and
hearing rumors of problems in the Ukrainian factory (more on that in Part
2) I set out to buy every Ukrainian lens I could get my hands on. I wound
up with 30, 45, 65, 80, 120, 250, and 300mm lenses for my Kiev. The total
price tag for all of those lenses (some used, some new) was $769. Since
I consider one of the great luxuries in life is taking a long New England
car ride in the fall with a case full of medium format cameras and lenses
and a brick of Fuji Velvia, the value of the pricey reworked 88 bodies
In the months that I've been working on this piece I have come to
really like a few of these Ukrainian bargain lenses. The 30 of course,
the excellent Hartblei shift lenses, the sweet Kaleanar 150 f/2.8, and
the long Jupiter 250. I also went out and bought a bunch of Zeiss Jena
lenses from Shutterbug advertiser Mid-west Photo. They set me up with
some excellent bargains on Zeiss lenses originally designed for the Pentacon
cameras. For under $1000 I wound up with a Zeiss 50mm Flek-togon, 80mm
and 120mm Biometar, and 180 Sonnar. While these lenses are also optically
excellent, they have the slick finish and smooth focusing qualities of
expensive medium format lenses for a fraction of the price. It's
a compelling system, my little rig, and if it weren't for the tremendous
disadvantage of the 1/30 sec flash synch I would use it even more. With
a $150 Polaroid back and a few extra 6x6 film backs it is a real pro system
with a case full of lenses, all for the price of a basic medium format
camera from a name brand company.
Be sure to join me next month when I explore the Kiev 60/Pentacon 6/Exakta
17000 Prague 7
fax for US: 1-305-6750186
Kiev Camera (Mikhail Fourman)
2907 Aspen Woods Entry
Atlanta, GA 30360
248 Mill St.
Greenwich, CT 06830
fax: (203) 531-6229
Russian Camera Exchange
1408 Josephine Street
Berkeley, CA 94703
Russian Plaza (Gennady Kaplan)
7910 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
fax: (323) 650-8232